National News

Playwright of Poverty Rejects Elite’s Push for Hard Luck Stories

Posted April 28, 2018 3:11 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Lucy Thurber’s play “Transfers” made its debut off-Broadway on Monday and proved so popular it quickly received an extended run. The play tells the story of two community college students from the South Bronx — one black, one Hispanic — vying for a scholarship at a prestigious liberal-arts college in the Northeast. Thurber, the Obie Award-winning writer of “The Hill Town Plays,” grew up in rural poverty in New England and drew in part on her own experiences navigating the world of higher education. The following conversation took place over lunch and via email; it has been condensed and edited.

Q: There is a lot of investment — both financial and intellectual — in the idea that the real path toward remediating inequality is getting poor students into the kinds of colleges that historically have existed to preserve the place of elites. Your play, at its heart, wrestles with this notion — what happens to the child who doesn’t get into Amherst?

A: There’s a culture of violence that usually comes when you have lack of opportunity, lack of work, lack of money, and lack of educational opportunities. That violence comes from feelings of shame or frustration, and the powerlessness that accompanies scarcity. Kids who do not have a way “out” through education usually take one of three paths: They stay and are embroiled and integrated into this culture of violence, or they enter one of the two other systems that “welcome” the poor: prison and/or the military.

Q: But in your play — spoiler alert — one of the two boys doesn’t score the brass ring. He doesn’t get into the college that is supposed to save him — but the audience is left with the sense that he’ll be OK, more than OK. And you manage never to suggest that it is because he has “resilience.”

A: Since leaving Western Massachusetts and seeing more of the world, I now understand that part of my own desperation to get admitted to college came from not understanding that there is more than one path to success. Part of the scarcity model I grew up with taught me to believe I only got one shot. There are many ways to educate yourself.

Q: You grew up with a single mother, sometimes struggling with homelessness, and you ultimately received scholarships to boarding school and Sarah Lawrence. What were the most difficult aspects of crossing over, from one world into another?

A:It was shocking to me, in a wonderful way, when I got to Sarah Lawrence, to be in a place where people did not need to lock their doors. Not just because they weren’t afraid of people stealing, but because they weren’t afraid of who might come into their room at night. Suddenly I found myself in this foreign land of unfathomable safety, and plentiful resources. I had no bearings or examples of how to operate within it. Suddenly my day was supposed to be about getting to class, deciding what to wear, and doing homework, as opposed to worrying about how to get warm, where to find food later, or how to avoid someone threatening me or my mother with violence. My language, my mode of being, was very foreign to the other students I met, who could not believe my utter fascination with the salad bar at lunch. Ultimately I made incredible friends and that institution changed my life, but it was a jagged beginning. I experienced panic attacks and PTSD. I felt ugly and isolated, because I did not know the culture of this place of luxury, or how to blend in within it. It wasn’t until fairly recently that I’ve accepted that this other life I’ve built was not borrowed or temporary.

Q: “Transfers” takes issue with the idea that poor students should be forced to produce reductive narratives of their challenging lives as a kind of poverty porn, for college admissions offices. How have you seen this play out?

A:Privilege is often blind to the more subtle aggressions students face when they are asked to talk about their lives to the elite. I have seen and experienced the tokenism and exploitation of minorities in the admissions process in many parts of our country. When you come from an underserved community, for some reason people think your “hard luck story” is something they are owed for considering your application. It is just another aspect of our identities that these institutions seek to own, label and misuse, albeit unintentionally. I understand though, that it often comes from a genuine desire to help.

Q: One of the most provocative themes in the play is the idea that colleges have not come up with adequate tools to assess students who have grown up in households with none of the advantages of affluence.

A: I am constantly disturbed by the notion that a lower-income background means you do not possess the ability to articulate yourself. Rural people where I come from, as well as the high school students I teach in New York City, are often some of the most beautifully articulate people I know. They simply have their own language. Just because the middle and upper classes often do not recognize this language does not mean that it does not express the human spirit or the human mind well or fully. I am also disturbed and offended by the notion that simply because a lower-income student did not have access to elite education or preparation, they are less intelligent than those who did. Intelligence cannot be measured in SAT scores, or high school GPA, when you are coming from these kinds of places. Our system of education was designed to keep the classes separated and if we are ever going to change this exclusionist culture, then we have to change the way we evaluate students from disadvantaged backgrounds. To say “they couldn’t keep up here” is a falsehood. We need to “keep up” with them.

Q: When we met for lunch you were just about to read “Hillbilly Elegy.” Most of the people who come to see “Transfers” will be white and urban and well-off. What would you want them to know about growing up poor and white in America?

A: I want them to know that the people where I come from do in fact exist. And that they matter. August Wilson once told me, when I was a baby playwright: “I bet the people that you grew up around told stories. Because if you come from these kinds of places, you tell each other stories. That’s one of the ways in which you know that you exist.” I want us all to expand our stories.